The hermeneutics of suspicion

The term “hermeneutics of suspicion” was coined by Paul Ricoeur to describe a critical, interpretative methodology of several 19th century philosophers including Nietzsche, Freud and Marx. Despite obvious differences in content, Ricoeur identified a similarity in approach. The object of suspicious hermeneutics is to unmask, to dig beneath the surface and to discover hidden truths. The hermeneutics of suspicion also conveys an intense scepticism of any commonly held views. Indeed, it can be described as looking at everything, especially that which is highly praised, with a jaded eye — not simply cynicism for the sake of cynicism, but to reveal what lies beneath.

We are flooded by messages, statements, claims, assertions and even the odd argument on the television and internet. Critical judgement is vital to make sense of things and to avoid common pitfalls of gullibility. But while discrimination and discernment protect from the mass of falsehood, they are insufficient to make sense of the world. Recognising falsehood and eschewing it is important, but often in falsehood lies truer messages reflecting the state of society or a certain subset thereof. This is particularly important in relation to politics and social policy. It is one thing to dismiss an argument or call for action because it seems absurd, but often far more productive to understand its underpinning axioms — or, as the case may be, determine that there are none. One insight of Nietzsche is that it is not just truths but untruths that we should consider; falsity can have its own truth and meaning, which the critical thinker may be too quick to reject and therefore miss.

Critical thinking is most often put to use on things outside the mainstream, but a suspicious hermeneutic approach is usually more interested in the assumptions of the mainstream, for it is by these assumptions that most people live their lives. Many things in society are lamented as regrettable or undesirable, without links being drawn between them or their causes. The critical thinker is quick to remind us that correlation is one thing but causation another. But in spouting that first rule of statistics, they forget to dig deeper. The problem is that once something is deemed false, the possibility that there may be greater meaning behind it is ignored. Critical thought reveals what is false, but it takes the deeper, interpretive approach of the hermeneutics of suspicion to derive meaning from falsehood and truth alike.

The dominant interrogative approaches of critical thought focus on surface, not depth, structure, not meaning, and analysis, not interpretation.

I try to practice the hermeneutics of suspicion because I recognise that where there are flaws in the world, they come from flawed foundational ideas first and flawed actions second. Trying to address the problems society faces without first evaluating whence those problems come is futile. If you pride yourself on being critical, take the time to turn your critical eye on commonly accepted truths and to try to understand the underlying philosophical basis of modern ideas. Ideas outside the mainstream are easy to evaluate and dismiss, but they are rarely the ideas influencing our lives.


Further reading:

Felski, R. (2012). Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion, available at the Journal of Media and Culture.

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